A Tough Questions Debate: Eric Sawyer

For primary context for this discussion see the primary conversation.  In the midst of a debate with Bill Pratt of Tough Questions Answered Eric Sawyer jumped into the discussion with some very interesting points and perspectives.  Although our conversation was brief Eric brought a courteous and respectful change of pace to what had become a heated conversation.

Willie G says:

May 26, 2010 at 10:26 pm

I actually like the moniker Philistine Dog. It truly made me laugh out loud. And the thought of having my own private corner of hell in the mind of the likes of DOTW gave me a chuckle as well. In fact I think I will use both of these phrases as the title and subtitle of a new blog that will discuss what skeptics should expect from lunatic fundamentalist Christians when they chance upon them while asking honest seeking questions.

R. Eric Sawyer says:

May 26, 2010 at 10:36 pm

Thanks WG. The Philistines sometimes get a bit of a bad rap, I think. If I remember rightly, I think David spent some time amongst them.  I’ve probably offended enough on this topic, though I should probably bow out unless I have something burning my tounge out to say.  BTW, I think you are wrong, and importantly so, but you seem as honest and as rational as most of us. (and as dishonest and irrational as most of us, for what THAT is worth!)

Willie G says:

May 27, 2010 at 8:42 am

You said: “I think you wrong, and importantly so, but you seem as honest and as rational as most of us.”

This is the first time in this long thread that you have engaged with me directly. Since you have now stated that you think that I am wrong in an important way I am assuming that you have some more developed thoughts on my question. Would you mind taking a few minutes to elaborate?  Why is it reasonable to believe in the Christian God? Why do all the philisophical / apologetic / experiential arguments lead you to Yawheh and not Allah, Vishnu, Ra, etc?  Why is it reasonable to believe in the Christian God?

R. Eric Sawyer says:

May 27, 2010 at 7:08 pm

(By the way, Willie, I can appreciate your idea of reading people who disagree with you. I have a couple of atheist blogs I visit from time to time ((Billy)) the Atheist being one, and have found it to my profit. Those guys give no quarter, but on the rare times I post there, the interaction always helps me cut the bs out of my argument, and they have alway treated me with about the same level of respect I give them. I learn very little by only reading people who agree with me. The only danger, Willie, is as true for you as it is for me. And that is to develope a love of debate for its own sake, not as a route to truth upon which I should change my life, but just because it is entertaining. Doing that can lead either one of us to an intellectual, emotional and spiritual life fragmented from our real self, and therefore illusionary. I don’t have much more hope for the eternal existence of the illusionary human than I do for the illusionary unicorn. Probably less – there may yet be real unicorns)

Willie G. wrote: Why is it reasonable to believe in the Christian God? Why do all the philosophical / apologetic / experiential arguments lead you to Yawheh and not Allah, Vishnu, Ra, etc? Why is it reasonable to believe in the Christian God?”

Willie (or should I say PhD –for Phillistine Dog? Maybe Willy G., PhD.?)  I’m afraid I am not going to be able to give you answers that satisfy an intellectual proof. That is largely why I have avoided speaking directly to that issue on this thread. But I will be happy to lay out some of my thoughts.

My difficulties are several: first, I wish to defer to those who have spent for [sic] time with the classical arguments, and suspect both Bill and you surpass me on that score. I am not likely to strike fire where my superior has not.  Secondly, and probably more to the point, I do not believe such an irrefutable argument for the existence of the Christian God is to be found. This is decidedly not due to any ambivalence on my part: you saw (if you particularly enjoy watching train wrecks) me publicly state that I affirm 95% of our late friends theological statements. I’ll hold to that. I’m as knee-jerk orthodox as anyone. But from what I can see from the statements of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels, it doesn’t seem as though a Q.E.D. proof was intended. Paul does indicate in Romans 1 that at least the beginnings can be plainly seen, and that seems evident to me. At the very least, I think we can see that someone/some principle/something is “in charge”, and further, that it ain’t me.

Lastly, what proofs I do have involve anecdotal evidence. As an undergrad, most of my training was in statistics and experimental design, for an intended academic career in psychological research. That path has been long abandoned, but it did leave a residue of “how do you know what you know, and how does one prove it?” Probably one of the more useful “abandonded” majors anyone could have. But anecdotes are not proof, only suggestions for further research (and more grant money).

With those disclaimers, I’ll dive in.  My path has not been terribly different from what you describe. I became a practicing Christian in High school, a committed one in univ., but about 10 years after that, I went through a crisis of faith that compelled me to throw it all away, like a bag of worthless stones. I remember standing at the end of a jetty off of Galveston Island praying to “whoevver is listening, if anyone.”  Some six – twelve months latter, when I next took up the issue, I tried to figure out what I did actually believe. I discovered that I was a theist – that I definitely believed that there was a God (and by pretty clear deduction, this meant one and only one, whatever I should call him or it), later I found that I believed this entity to be good, and later, that it was personal (meaning having the characteristics of personality, and person-hood, not that he was necessarily connected to ME). This took me close to a year, but having got this far, the whole of Christian orthodoxy came rushing back as if a dam holding it back had broken. This re-affirmation, or re-discovery was both intellectual and emotional. I feel a lot of kinship with your struggle, but where I “bounced off” some bottom, you broke through. That was not due to any virtue in me that you lack; some would see it as me lacking a virtue you possess. But I do not believe it was from within me, and I don’t understand it outside of God’s grace.

To get more to the question, I take it that your question does not relate to specific deities proposed in other systems (I know v. little about comparative religion, although ignorance is often not an impediment). Rather I see it as a question about Christianity v other religion in abstract – why THIS instead of any other system one could devise?  And partly, the answer is as subjective as why I married the woman I did.  I did not read the book, her CV, and say “this proves it – she is the one for me!” Instead, I engaged a process of right foot – left foot, where my advancing intellectual knowledge of her fed my advancing emotional connection, which being found to be reliable so far, led to further exploration and advances in relationship until the point of commitment was reached.

My belief in God as the Christian story describes Him (and from here forward, I’ll just refer to “God” meaning this whole phrase) is not primarily intellectual at all. But it is also not primarily emotional. It is hand-over-hand leading to an experiential understanding that I believe is central to authentic relationship; and I think that this is what God desires. In fact, I think it almost the prime desire of the universe. I wish I could give mathematical proofs (there are mathematical true things, but I don’t think any of them ‘prove’ God) but I think He intends things to be a little more willful from us, and a little less compelled.

Working backward, I can buy many of the arguments Bill would bring forth, and I think many of them true. Given the starting points I gave from Romans, that God is real, and I am not God, I can develop the doctrine of Trinity, creation, the fall, the restoration, and the ultimate consummation of the last chapters of the Revelation. There are of course, quite a bit that confuses me, but I find that the Biblical narrative holds together as a coherent story from beginning to end, even with all the diversions (like a Russian novel), and that unity both supports and is supported by my emotional experience. I find that, as I explore Christian doctrine, I find it shedding light on all sorts of experiences in this world, from sexuality to agriculture. I find that, like the sun, God is hard to look at. But by the sun, I can see everything else more clearly. And, if there truly is a trancendent, self-existant being who created all things including the very fabric of space and time itself, this is exactly what one should expect to find.  Still working backwards, if this God I posit above wishes to relate to us, then it would have to be in one of two fashions: a) Shakespeare must put something into Hamlet’s head about the author, or b) Shakespeare must write himself into the story. And Christianity’s claim is that God did exactly that: revelation and incarnation.

Willie, I could go on ad nauseum in the same fashion, but my point is either made or not by now. There is much that I don’t understand. After some 35 years, I am just beginning to see something of the mystery of how the death of Jesus and his resurrection is of personal benefit to me. I’ve long accepted it, but I am just starting to understand it a little, like a 2nd year physics student and quantum mechanics.  I believe in the Christian God because I heard a little, and asked him “is this true?” I understood that answer to that question as something like “come and see” I go back and forth between learning and experiencing, and should trust neither one, anymore than I should try to get down the road by hopping. The more I have understood and accepted the Christian story, the more sense this world, my place and your place, and everything else seems to make. If this story is indeed central to existence, I could expect no less. But I honestly do believe that there is relationship at the bottom of it; that God intends nothing less than the healing of this creation and us relating to him as in a marriage. Everything I have submitted to that framework fits, and is illuminated by it. That is why I believe it. That is why I believe there is great good to come for all who will accept it.

Willie G says:

May 28, 2010 at 3:45 pm

You said: “…what proofs I do have involve anecdotal evidence…. My training was in statistics and experimental design…. [It left] a residue of “how do you know what you know, and how does one prove it?” But anecdotes are not proof, only suggestions for further research….”

Let me offer some statistics which illustrate the difficulty of my question:

There are estimated to be over 4200 religions worldwide. Of these there are now recognized 12 major religions (criteria being: large number of adherents, widespread reaching multiple countries, independent distinctness from other religions, possessing a body of doctrine [scripture or holy book], still in practice today). Christianity is largest world religion today with over 2 billion adherents.

See: http://www.theologicalstudies.org/classicalreligionlist.html

It is estimated that worldwide there are over 34,000 Christian denominations with greater than 15,000 being recognized by the IRS for tax-exempt status in the United States alone.

See: http://www.goshen.edu/news/pressarchive/02-25-08-roth-folo.html

The religions of the world are dispersed across the globe in very specific cultural and societal divisions, highly influenced by historical, political and socioeconomic dispersal routes.

See: http://www.worldreligions.psu.edu/maps-introduction.htm

While none of these facts are intended to be proof of any philosophical position, they clearly point to the difficulty of answering my question of reasonableness. You speak of anecdotal evidence and experiential and emotional knowledge but can you point to any evidence to demonstrate that had you not been born and raised in the United States or some other culturally Christian society that you would still have anecdotal evidence for the Christian God. I would proffer that had you been born in Saudi Arabia, Iran or Iraq you would have anecdotal evidence of the true presence of Allah. Had you been born in India the evidence would be to Vishnu.  But lets focus just on Christianity. You have stated earlier that you used to be of one denomination and now you identify as Anglican (I think). While your particular denomination is more on the liberal end of the continuum, as has been loudly demonstrated in this thread there are others counted in the 34,000 or more other denominations that hold you not to be a Christian at all. I may be castigated as the Philistine Dog and the spawn of Satan, but I’m reasonably sure the DOTW considers you my next door neighbor (so keep the noise down over there!). So why is it reasonable that you have “Anglican” anecdotal evidence other than that is what your unique cultural, geographical, educational experience imposed upon you.  DOTW is convinced 100% that he is of the “true” faith, because his interpretation of his holy book is correct. I’m fairly confident that we could find between 15,000 and 33,000 just as sincere, passionate and outspoken folks that disagree with him in favor of their “true” faith and interpretation of the holy book.  But now step outside of that demise and add that there are 11 other major world religions all possessing their unique holy books as handed down by their unique holy gods. Multiply that by the thousands of sects contained in those religions (not to mention the 4188 minor world religions) all being influential culturally, socially and most important geographically, and suddenly my question is virtually impossible to answer.  In short, I would hypothesize that you are a Christian in general, and an Anglican in particular because you want to be. You find it, as Bill has said, “intellectually stimulating” and the practice of it has brought you a feeling of peace and security and it helps you be a good member of society and do good works for your fellow man. Plus, it allows you to formulate answers for questions that you have not been able to answer otherwise (viz. meaning and purpose of life, death, afterlife etc.).

R. Eric Sawyer says:

June 2, 2010 at 11:10 am

DOTW said:but why is experimentation a rational way of discovering true information about reality?”

Willie G said: “Wow. That’s all, just wow.”

I don’t know that anyone is nessesarily claiming that experimentation is NOT a rational way of discovering true information (BTW, that would not imply that it is a universal tool for producing such results. The fact that a hammer may be the only tool in my toolbox does not imply that it is the best or only tool for driving screws).  I would rather take it that “experimentation as a rational and effective tool” cannot come down from Mt Sinai , unless one wants to assert “divine revelation” as the underpinnings of science. For what it’s worth, I’m OK with that. I think that phrase [is] limited and limiting, but not wrong.  More likely, we have to avoid taking science as a given, else we are subject to all your doubts about religion.

What then are the underlying supports to scientific method and experimentation as ueseful tools?  One is that I asume the universe is rational. I can make no headway unless I take that as a baseline. But so taking it, because it is useful, is a long way from proving it or demonstrating why it should be so.  Another foundational idea is the idea of causality. Things happen for a reason. (Please forgive me for basic scientific philosophy, I expect you know these things) Is this normative, or simply discriptive? Is there a distinction between the two? Is causality universally operative? if so, how do we avoid B.F. Skinner’s (among others) idea that even our “rational thought” is simply conditioning?  If “science” is taken as a bedrock assertion on it’s own, it becomes a semi-religious idea, subject to all the weak points for which you call religion to task. It also needs to answer for them.

Willie G says:

June 2, 2010 at 12:34 pm

I think your comment overall is very broad and will be difficult to adequately respond to as you have crossed boundaries of many disciplines (scientific methodology, epistemology, metaphysics, philosophy, theology, etc.). So I will make an attempt to zero in on what I think is pertinent to the overall discussion (please let me know if you think I have missed your intent).

You said: “[A] foundational idea is the idea of causality. Things happen for a reason…. Is this normative, or simply descriptive? Is there a distinction between the two? Is causality universally operative? If so, how do we avoid B.F. Skinner’s (among others) idea that even our “rational thought” is simply conditioning?”

I want to make three points based upon your entire response, but using the above quote as the starting point:

1. It is outside the capacity human reason to prove the existence of entities or events outside of the natural world.

Causality is a foundational ideal, or law if you will. However causality breaks down at the point of “infinite regress.” It is outside our natural ability to establish the truth or untruth of an uncaused cause. Science limits itself to the observable natural world and speculates (guesses, hypothesizes) what else there may be based on those observations.

2. Genetics, social-conditioning, innate psychological biases, survival instinct prevent us from ever possessing absolute certainty about anything, therefore everything is to be scrutinized.

I am very much in line with B.F. Skinner and many of the existentialist philosophers. We are all biased, conditioned, genetically and environmental predisposed to certain understandings. The only way we have any hope to overcome is to rationally question everything, all truth claims must fall under scrutiny and the more rational the methodology used for this process the more sure we can be that we have eliminated (or at least barricaded) our conditioning.

3. Science and the scientific method have proven to be the most reliable method for obtaining an understanding of the natural world and the humans that live in it as part of that natural world.

 Science is consistently and steadfastly making mistake after mistake, failure after failure, false conclusion after false conclusion. As a result of this process of elimination the antiquated falsehoods of the past are tumbling one by one. The workings of the natural world are being discovered, documented and leveraged. The myths of ancient civilizations are being refuted and replaced with observable, tested hard data. Superstition has eroded for the last 500 years to the point that religious belief pre-enlightenment is not even recognizable to the religious of today. Agnosticism, skepticism and scientific scrutiny have taught irrefutably the wisdom that nothing is undeserving of the critical and questioning eye.

So Eric, I ask you, in the light of the fast advance of science and it’s impact upon the knowledge base of the world, what other method seems reasonable to you to ascertain some semblance of truth?

R. Eric Sawyer says:

June 2, 2010 at 5:36 pm

You said: “1.  It is outside the capacity human reason to prove the existence of entities or events outside of the natural world.  Causality is a foundational ideal, or law if you will. However causality breaks down at the point of “infinite regress.” It is outside our natural ability to establish the truth or untruth of an uncaused cause. Science limits itself to the observable natural world and speculates (guesses, hypothesizes) what else there may be based on those observations.”

I can understand about causality breaking down in infinite regression. Although perhaps not totally. I can see why it would be impossible for science to speak to the cause of something that had no cause. Does it also follow that reason has nothing to say about something that has results, even if it has no cause? As we walk back along the chain, when we reach the first link, can we not even describe the chain, and the place of that link in it, how the other links relate to that pattern, even though our method is powerless to say what comes before the first?  Perhaps a more powerful example would be in the quantum realm, where, if I understand, causality breaks down pretty far. Statistics, probablility and uncertainty rule. And yet the sum of all that chaos, the world on our scale, seems pretty well causally anchored.  In providing fuel for your fire, I am acknowleging that you rghtfully put a hedge around science: as great a tool as it is, there are some problems that just don’t lend themselves to it. The question is that, given this “black-out zone” that science cannot look through, what (if anything) lies beyond it, how is that veil pierced, and with what reliability can we regard the answers. Actually, I think this may be a fair summary of our questions to date.

You said:2. Genetics, social-conditioning, innate psychological biases, survival instinct prevent us from ever possessing absolute certainty about anything, therefore everything is to be scrutinized. I am very much in line with B.F. Skinner and many of the existentialist philosophers. We are all biased, conditioned, genetically and environmental predisposed to certain understandings. The only way we have any hope to overcome is to rationally question everything, all truth claims must fall under scrutiny and the more rational the methodology used for this process the more sure we can be that we have eliminated (or at least barricaded) our conditioning.”

To tell you something completely obvious, I know very little philosophy. I ran into a lot of Skinner in school,”Beyond Freedom and Dignity” was all the rage. I disliked him intensly, but I could not then see the answer.  But I agree greatly that we are conditioned to an astoundingly and distressingly great degree. In fact, one of my private opinions is that movement “into God” is also “into truth,” and that part of the freedom we are to develop into is freedom from all these things, elevation from being another causal link (and nothing more) into something much more capable of being an actual initiator of events, the way we claim God (as ‘un-moved mover’)is. A part of man being made in God’s image. Even secular mental health practitioners seem to regard movement toward this type of freedom as movement towards health and wholeness.

You said: “3. Science and the scientific method have proven to be the most reliable method for obtaining an understanding of the natural world and the humans that live in it as part of that natural world. …”

I agree with you about the power of the scientific method, and its results. The danger with any successful technique though, is that its practitioners can assume that it is the right tool for any task. And with that, we have come full-circle. The fact that science is a very good tool does not change what you said earlier about science knowing that it has limits.  Knowing that we may be lacking in other tools does not make science an appropriate one. As you put it “… Agnosticism, skepticism and scientific scrutiny have taught … that nothing is undeserving of the critical and questioning eye.” This including agnostism, skepticism and scientific scrutiny.

You said: “So Eric, I ask you, in the light of the fast advance of science and it’s impact upon the knowledge base of the world, what other method seems reasonable to you to ascertain some semblance of truth?”

Fair enough…. But true reason knows what it cannot know, and that is (at least) in any existance beyond causality.  Anything on that side of the veil cannot even in theory be reached from here. It may not be knowable at all. But if so, it would have to be by revelation from “that side”. This does not come within a mile of proving that it happened, but it does show that, if there is to be such knowledge, it must come from the other side, not from beneath reason,and that is a common error, but from beyond it. It is subject to reason once it comes within our grasp, but not before.


Advertisements
Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Comments

  • R. Eric Sawyer  On June 6, 2010 at 10:11 AM

    Hi there, Mr W!
    just found you, and will be back for a point or two.
    -res

  • Philistine Dog  On June 8, 2010 at 3:53 PM

    Thanks for stopping by Eric. Hope we can continue our discussion soon.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: